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Setting down Roots

So guess what we did in December... We started our orchard! See? Those sticks in the ground? There it is! Isn't it beautiful?


We live in NC zone 7b, so the best time to plant fruit trees is actually the fall/beginning of winter here. This gives the roots a chance to get in deep before the heat and dryness of summer comes. Further up north, you have to do the opposite and plant in the spring. So at the end of the summer, I started looking around and trying to figure out exactly what I wanted.

Apple trees don't do well around here, so they say, but I really wanted to try anyway. The apple trees that don't do well are the conventional, modern trees, and I wanted heritage so I'm hoping there's a difference. There is a fascinating history behind apple trees, that I didn't know about, but loved learning. America used to have all kinds of apple trees everywhere and were kind of famous for our apples. It's no wonder apple pie is such an American symbol! But it went even further than that. We didn't really drink beer, we drank hard cider. (Which, I don't know if you've ever had any hard cider, but you should try it. It tastes like a mix of apple juice, beer, and champagne. Just don't drink a lot! It's slowly making a comeback nowadays too. It's fermented cider, so it's good for you. In moderation!)

Anyway, the modern conventional breeds were grown for modern conventional reasons, and the old breeds were slowly disappearing. There are a few people still trying to keep the old breeds, though, and I found some. The first one I found was all the way up in Maine, John Bunker sells his trees, among other things, at FedCoSeeds.com. He travels around finding old apple trees and gets grafts to grow new ones of the same variety. He's working to revive the old, heritage trees that we've long since forgotten.

Well, I was sold, but there was a problem. All of his trees would do well further north than me. So I needed to find someone in the south. And I found Lee Calhoun. Mr. Calhoun does the same thing, but down here. He's apparently pretty famous too, in the apple tree business. He doesn't sell anymore, but I was able to find some other apple growers who were mentored by Mr. Calhoun. David Vernon, of Century Farm Orchards, sells heritage apple trees not very far from me. (And pretty reasonably priced too!) I was thrilled, and poured through, studied, and debated on which apple trees to buy. Thankfully, he's got a list of trees for the warmer climates, so that helped narrow down my search. But still, I was nervous. Planting an orchard, even if it is small, is an investment. You won't really know if what you've picked will work for a few years. If it doesn't, you'll have to start over.

I knew we needed four trees. So I emailed Mr. Vernon, and told him my hesitations and my zone, and asked his advice. He was nice enough to respond and tell me exactly which ones he would recommend for our zone and county. He's in NC too, and only about an hour and a half away from us, so he knows where I am. He narrowed it down to nine options, so I picked four of those.

I decided on:

    • Aunt Rachel for it's early ripening, and it's good for cooking and fresh eating
    • Mollie's Delicious for it's July/Aug ripening, and it's good for fresh eating and cider
    • Blacktwig Mammoth ripens next in Sept/Oct and is good for fresh eating, cooking, drying, and cider
    • Terry Winter ripens last in November and is good for eating and storage

So I'll hopefully have apples ripening from June to November, and will be able to eat, cook, store, and make cider too. (Hard and soft.) (I don't know if it's called soft cider when it's not fermented into an alcoholic beverage, but it sounded good.) (One more tidbit, in case you didn't know as I didn't, apple juice has been strained, apple cider has not been.)

Time to Plant

After all that research and ordering the trees, we just had to wait about a month. Mr. Vernon shipped us the trees on December 7, and we got them on the 8th. The UPS driver pulled up, and we'd been working on the holes all day so the kids were waiting for these trees. We were also planning on getting our Christmas tree the next day, so when the driver pulled up Esmond ran out to him to ask if he'd brought our Christmas tree. He was a little confused, well, both of them were.

We'd been eyeing a spot for our trees all year long. Orchards, small ones anyway, do well on hills that face north or east. We have a little hill right in our backyard that faces northeast, so it's perfect. The trees do well on the hill because the cold air flows down the hillside, and doesn't sit under the trees. Jeremy and I marked our spots, about 20 feet apart (for semi-dwarf trees) with his range finder. We decided to put the apple trees in a straight line across the hill, slightly downhill from the top. I have in mind to plant plums and pears, too, so I wanted to leave room for more trees.

To plant these lovely sticks, we followed the directions. Except for the first thing, which says to use roundup to kill the grass around your hole. We used fire instead. Jeremy had to take the trash off and was going to let me use the torch to burn the grass while he was gone. He showed me how to turn it on, I, of course, had it, and told him to go ahead. He started to walk away, but must have been watching me. I started the torch up without moving the gas tank (apparently, you should) and he came back hollering. I didn't get to use the torch anymore. (If you don't have one, it's a great tool for homesteading, gardening, and yard work. I found the best price at Harbor Freight, and we've loved it.)

Gideon and I took turns digging the holes. He used his post hole auger, and I used a pick axe to make it wider. It worked pretty well. We got the holes about 1 foot deep, and 1.5 feet wide. Then Jeremy came behind with a tiller, to till up a circle around the trees and covered up our holes. So we dug our holes again. One day, I'll get this right.

After Jeremy tilled the ground around a few times, we spread some lime and blood meal on the tilled ground, and he tilled it in one more time. Then it was finally time to plant our trees! We carefully cut through the box and tape and spread the roots out in our holes.We covered them with some of the dirt and then sprinkled in some more lime and blood meal. I tried to mix the rest of the dirt up with those two while we were packing it in. I tried to get the roots packed in pretty tightly. We buried the trees right up to the graft line.

I'd read things about voles and what not, and one easy way to help deter them is to add a little gravel around the base of the tree. So we did that. Jeremy told me not to worry about, that we don't have a vole problem. But I suspect that we might one day run into voles, since we're building an orchard. The kids and I spread hay over the circles to keep the weeds and grass from growing back and tried to keep it away from the trunk of the trees.

The last thing I did was to drag buckets of water to the top of the hill to water each little tree. Then we all gathered around in a circle and prayed a blessing over our apple trees. Hard work, like digging in the dirt, makes you grateful and leaves you feeling like you've given your all and now it's up to God's grace. Thankfully, He's good.


  1. Wow! Planting trees in December! It's -11 here right now with a couple feet on the ground. I need to visit your site a little more often to feel warmer. Your homestead is beautiful!
    We still have the original 11 apple trees on our homestead that our ancestors planted when they settled this land. And we still have my great-great-great-a-few-more-grandmother's handwritten journals. They did EVERYTHING with these apples and the trees are credited for getting them through the Depression even. We harvest from all the trees every year and they are a huge part of our lives today.
    I'm so happy to see you getting trees. Excited for you! I hope they thrive.

    1. I told my kids about your snow levels, and they said "So we'd have to dig another 2 feet down?" Pretty much, but I told them I didn't think we'd be able dig once we hit the ground.
      That is such a beautiful story! I love to think about the history that these apple trees that I've planted will (hopefully) live through. Maybe one day my grandchildren's grandchildren will eat off the same trees. It's nice to think that we're providing food for those who will come after us, whether they be family or not.

  2. Starting an orchard! Wow! I am so glad you wrote about this, because that's one of the fruit trees I'd like to have once we move up there. Thank you for the valuable information and for sharing it on The Maple Hill Hop! Best wishes for healthy trees!

    1. Thanks Daisy G! Are you moving up to NC? It's a great place to live!

  3. This is great and I love how you all worked together. Now is when we start planting trees here as well. Decided to skip that step at this homestead because we won't be staying. Our next place though it's one of the first things we'll be doing when the winter hits. So probably 2017 for us, think we'll go with peach and pecan trees.

    Carole @ Garden Up Green

    1. I'd love to have peach, but if you have peach around here you pretty much have to spray because of the japanese beetles. Since I'm trying to avoid spraying, I'm having to avoid peaches. It kind of makes me sad though.

  4. We have several fruit trees that haven't done much in our back yard, but I don't think I've treated them right. The idea of having your own orchard is so exciting! I hope yours grow well.

    1. Thanks Jamie! I'm excited about everything I have to learn about having an orchard. It's going to be an experience, that's for sure!

  5. Hi, I invite you to linkup with us on our weekly blog hop at essentialhomestead.com

  6. We live in SC and always plant bushes and trees in December. We have been adding a few trees to our orchard every year and can't wait until they are big enough to give us fresh peaches, plums and pecans!
    Thanks for sharing on the Our Simple Homestead Blog Hop! http://oursimplelife-sc.com/our-simple-homestead-blog-hop-33/

    1. I want to plant plums next, and some pears. It's going to be so wonderful isn't it? Thanks for hosting Tracy!